The effective protection of humanrights always requires a good knowledge of the human rights conditions andapplicable legal principles. 9 NGOs consistently monitor human rightssituations in particular countries all over the world (the latter is applied totransnational NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International). Theyalso monitor whether states comply with their obligations under human rightslaw. In other words, they act as “watchdogs” and provide an independentoverview and assessment of whether and how human rights are ensured.
Suchmonitoring helps to collect data about human rights situations at the nationaland international level and highlight any problems. NGOs are well known fortheir role in gathering information with respect to the abuse of human rightsand freedoms. They gather information from various sources: for example, fromhuman rights victims, witnesses, other human rights NGOs, newspapers, inexamining injuries and physical evidence, observing trials, and demonstrations.By gathering and disseminating information about human rights issues NGOs tryto draw the attention of the public, governments, and other actors to theproblems that exist in the human rights field and raise the concerns of usuallyunheard voices. Thus investigation, documentation and dissemination of theinformation by human rights NGOs play a vital role in bringing human rightsabuses to the attention of public and international community.
As ClaudeEmerson Welch notes, “without the flow of information, documentation, and datafrom NGOs the entire human rights implementation system and the UN would cometo a halt”. 10 The important role of NGOs in gathering the information isrecognized by Theo van Boven as well. According to the former director of the UnitedNations Human Rights Centre in Geneva, NGOs provide 85 percent of theinformation provided to the Centre11 and thus prove that the United Nations aregreatly dependent on NGOs for information. Indeed, NGOs serve as a key sourceof information to governments, intergovernmental organizations, politicians,human rights tribunals. Furthermore, NGOs provide reliable and credibleinformation that sometimes contradicts the information provided by states, andthus proves that some countries may lie about the real human rightssituation(s) in their country.
The information that NGOs “gather,verify, and disseminate is their major weapon in lobbying governments to changethe policy” 12 regarding the human rights. In playing the role of “advocates”,NGOs try to influence the politicians to make decisions in favour of better andmore efficient human rights protection. In large part the lobbying takesthrough the NGOs participation in the negotiations or consultations processeson the new human rights standards. NGOs also lobby regional, internationalgovernmental bodies to take some actions with respect to human rights violatorstates. 13 Thus the NGOs lobbying has an internal, as well as externaldimension. It is noteworthy that traditionally in the work of human rightsNGOs, the gathering of information is concentrated on governments’ violationsof human rights rather than exploring the reasons (for example, traditional,cultural, socioeconomic development and etc.) that underlie them.
A fear existsthat explaining why human rights violations occur may justify the governmentsor give credence to the claims that human rights violations take place becauseof underdevelopment. 14 This could allow some governments to continue the humanrights violations and ignore their obligations under human rights law. Aimingto improve the human rights situation, the NGOs quite often directly assisthuman rights victims by providing them legal assistance (for example, handleindividual complaints), humanitarian assistance (for example, providingemergency aid, food, water, shelter, medicine, and health care for therehabilitation of torture victims15) and other kinds of direct assistance.
Because of NGOs’ knowledge of human rights situations and reputation forimpartiality, in some cases the NGOs are involved in the reconciliation andmediation process. 16 Usually they act as politically neutral intermediaries,working with opposing parties, facilitating negotiations, and helping to findan accepted solution for both parties. 17 This is especially the case insolving conflicts where the ethnic minorities are involved.The education on human rights issuescontributes to the improvement of human rights situations themselves, becausepeople learn about their rights and thus increase the possibility of claimingthem. NGOs disseminate information about human rights in general, as well as onspecific topics; they organize courses, release publications, and organizeevents (seminars, round tables and etc.
) on various topics of human rights; andthereby NGOs increase public awareness of human rights. Still the mosteffective weapon of human rights NGOs in protecting human rights is the”mobilization of shame” or the use of so-called “naming and shaming” strategy.This strategy holds that the gathering and publishing of information about acountry’s human rights records/abuses within their own borders will shame thegovernment into changing its behavior, increasing the government’s compliancewith international human rights standards. This strategy depends on the ideathat all governments, all countries in the world would like to be known ascivilized ones, which observe the international human rights standards whichthey themselves have helped to devise.
18 No government will easily admit thatit allows the violation of these standards. 19 Thus, the effectiveness of thisstrategy greatly depends on the credibility and reliability of the informationprovided by NGOs. The use of the “naming and shaming” strategy can not onlybring positive changes within the country, but it can also mobilizeinternational public opinion against the offending regime, leading other statesor intergovernmental organizations to take action, such as open criticism ordiplomatic and economic sanctions against the violating nation in order tochange “the bad practice”. In other words, human rights NGOs’ work has anexternal dimension as well. For example, active NGOs advocacy in theinternational arena has resulted in some sanctions having been taken againstthe People’s Republic of China after the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989.
More than twenty years after this event, “many of the U.S sanctions against thePeople Republic of China created in response to the Tiananmen militarycrackdown in 1989 remain in effect, including some foreign aid-relatedrestrictions, such as required “no” votes or abstentions by U.S.
representatives to international financial institutions regarding loans toChina (except those that meet basic human needs)”.20 It is obvious that by acting in manydifferent ways the human rights NGOs strive for some positive changes inprotecting human rights. They attempt to convince some actors – the local andnational governments, inter-governmental bodies, international community orother non-state actors – to take some or refrain from some actions inprotecting human rights or to change their policy in the human rights fieldtowards the greater protection of human rights and to create a human rightsfriendly environment.
In this case the NGOs are the catalyst for human rightspolicy changes. To measure precisely the effectiveness of NGOs is difficult,but “nearly everyone familiar with human rights politics acknowledges theirinfluence, including many governments whom they have criticized, and thissuggests that the influence is significant”. 25 NGOs help to identify andprioritize key human rights issues, highlight the imperfections of human rightsimplementation process, draw attention to human rights abuses, notify theemergency situations and address a wide range of previously unrecognizedproblems, like violence against women. The active work of NGOs has led to thesituation that most human rights questions are included in national andinternational agendas and the new human rights documents (national, regionaland international) are initiated.
The active advocacy of human rights NGOsprovides the opportunities to develop a culture of human rights protection.They also contribute to creating a better society, raising the worldconsciousness about human rights and, most importantly, they help to translatethe formal promises of governments for better human rights protection intoactual reality and thus give opportunities for individuals to fully enjoy theirinternationally recognized human rights standards. From this perspective, NGOsare certainly defenders of human rights. Moreover, if not for the pressure ofNGOs, “the diplomatic taboo that long prevented states from directlycriticizing each other’s internal behaviors might still be in place”. 26The importance of NGOs in ensuring thefull enjoyment of human rights is recognized in the 1993 Vienna Declaration,which stresses “the important role of NGOs in the promotion of all human rightsand in humanitarian activities at national, regional and international levels…. to the promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamentalfreedoms”. 27Not in all cases has the work of humanrights NGOs and the consequences of their activities been treated as positive.
There is always a risk that in some cases the activities of NGOs will have anegative effect on human rights, or sometimes will even be associated with morerights violations. As in the previous case there are external and internaldimensions. Regarding the latter, in some cases, pressuring the governments toratify the international human rights treaties may lead to an effect contraryto what is expected. Some countries, especially the authoritarian regimes, canratify human rights treaties, but they “can not only get away with continued humanrights violations, but may at times even step up violations in the belief thatthe nominal gesture of treaty ratification will shield them somewhat frompressure”. 28 Also there is a threat that political opponents of the governmentmay try to use human rights NGOs for their purposes “by feeding the NGOs newsabout alleged atrocities on the part of the government which may actually neverhave taken place”. 29 Still, in both of the above-mentioned cases, NGOs areonly a tool of speculation in achieving the goals of political players. Theother threat (more external in its nature) is seen by less economicallydeveloped, non-western countries which lack a democratic character and usuallybecome subject to criticism regarding human rights situations. In such contextsthe attitude dominates that human rights NGOs are enemies, the agents ofwestern countries that use the attractive excuses such as protecting the humanrights with the aim to attack the non-western countries.
The NGOs are not seenas altruistic organizations aiming to improve the human rights situation in thecountry, but rather as tools of powerful western countries in increasing theirinfluence and power in more vulnerable and weak non-western states. “Some largecountries frequently use the pretext of “freedom”, “democracy” or “humanrights” to encroach upon the sovereignty of other states, interfering in theirinternal affairs, damaging the unity of other countries or the solidarity oftheir nationalities”30 – asserted China’s state chairman Jiang Zemin in his1995 speech to the United Nations. Similar rhetoric was employed by Bahrainilawmaker Hassan Al Dossari. In his speech about the role of the NationalDemocratic Institute (NDI), a Washington-based organization operating inBahrain, he maintained: “The interference of NGOs is no less dangerous thanmilitary action. Both are tools used by some countries to achieve self-servingpolitical goals. … This is a soft force that is at times even more dangerousthan direct military action or economic sanction because it target mindsets,the culture and the national identity of societies and people”. 31 Consideringthe fact that most NGOs (including the most influential ones) are located inthe Western hemisphere and that usually the human-based sanctions are appliedby powerful western countries, like the U.S.
, such a threat seen by nonwesterncountries is not groundless. Moreover, as Rachel Brett notes, “governments donot tend to act when they are forced to take some actions towards protecting thehuman rights in other countries, if they don’t have political motivation orsome other political interests”. 32 As countries differ in many aspects(different political, social, economic, culture values and etc.) it is crucialthat in trying to achieve some positive changes on human rights the NGOs wouldbe very sensitive to the local conditions that give rise to human rights abusesand ways in which local societies adapt and apply human rights norms. 33 Inthis case the principle “one-size fits all” is not a solution; there are nouniversal tools and ways which could be applied to the same situations indifferent countries, because it could have negative reflections on human rightssituations. Speaking about the NGOs impact in protecting human rights and freedomsin the role of media, good relations with officials and “flexibility” of thegovernment should not be devaluated.
In fact, in ensuring the real enjoyment ofthe human rights the cooperation among the NGOs and media is crucial. Publicityis a powerful tool in defending human rights. In many cases the NGOs effortswould be meaningless if they would not be published.
I agree with Peter R.Baehr, who says that “human rights NGOs would be hard put to have any impact,if the media would not pay attention to their activities”. 34 It is true thatgovernments are more likely to be persuaded to act on behalf of human rights inthe face of media attention or the threat of it. 35 Once a particular humanrights problem gains public attention, it becomes more difficult for stateauthority to ignore it. Chances of success are greater if the governmentrespects the freedom of speech and the expression of public opinion. Thus, itmight be claimed that NGOs are not almighty and largely the successes of theiractivities depends of power of publicity.Finally, speaking about the effectiveprotection of human rights the nature of NGOs should not be forgotten as well.Basically the success of NGOs in protecting the human rights relies on theirnature.
NGOs as being the grassroots organizations are close to ordinary peopleand hence their closeness, better knowledge (human rights NGOs are often amongthe first to reach the scene of massive violations of human rights),understanding of their needs and problems helps better represent theirinterests. They are more efficient because they involve less bureaucratic redtape and overhead, 38 are independent and non-political as well, and theiractivities, unlike states, are not restricted by rule of law, internationalagreements, etc. They can be more flexible and have more freedom to actcompared to the state and thus can “be much more vocal, outspoken and fiercelycritical of violations that occur”. 39 Moreover, the NGOs concentrate all theirefforts and energy on one topic – protection of human rights. Meanwhile, thestate must concern itself with a wide range of interests and is not able toconcentrate only on human rights issues. Finally, NGOs can act effectively onlywhen their objectives coincide with those (state’s or) powerful states’interests.
The effectiveness of NGOs also greatly depends of the NGO itself:large, powerful, transnational and active NGOs which have resources and powerin their hands have more chances to make positive changes regarding theprotection of human rights, rather than their weak and powerless counterparts. Someauthors tend not to give all laurels to NGOs in decreasing the number of humanrights abuses. Some argue that the most human rights violations have endedthrough contextual factors such as political, social or economic changes andnot the efforts of human rights NGOs. 40 Moreover, some research has found manyfactors that influence human right practices: economic development and growth,foreign economic penetration, domestic conflict, interstate conflict,population size and level of democracy.
41 In sum, the protection of humanrights is a multiple process and the success of NGOs activities in protectinghuman rights greatly depends on a complex set of factors such as the activenessof NGOs, means that have been taken, strong civil society, political form ofthe government, political, socioeconomic situation in the country and manyothers.